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COP28 Captured by Oil Producers

The oil and gas industry and its government backers are taking over this year’s global climate talks, with US backing.

Words: Basav Sen
Pictures: Eslam Tawakol

The next round of annual UN climate talks, known as the Conference of Parties COP28, will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in November 2023. Last month, the UAE officially named Sultan al Jaber, the CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), as the President of COP28. Since then, it has emerged that a number of senior ADNOC officials are staffing the COP28 office.

While shocking, this news is not entirely without precedent. Fossil fuel lobbyists routinely attend the UN climate talks. There were 636 fossil fuel lobbyists at COP27 in Egypt last year, an increase of more than 100 from the number who attended COP26 in Scotland the prior year.

And in 2018, when COP24 was held in Katowice, in the heart of Poland’s coal mining region, the Polish government, known at that time for its strong support for the coal industry, entered into “partnerships” with coal companies to help host COP24. Since then, the Polish government has made some half-hearted attempts to move away from dependence on coal.

The passage of time, along with growing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration and rising global temperatures, however, makes the fossil fuel industry domination of COP28 all the more egregious. Reprehensible as past industry capture of the UN climate talks was, it’s completely inexcusable after the dire scientific warnings and the horrific climate disasters over the past few years. For instance, new scientific studies show that temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet are at their highest levels in 1,000 years; that the Antarctic ice sheet may be melting faster than scientists had thought, with serious implications for sea level rise; and that a wide swath of the United States, home to 107 million people, will experience summer temperatures that are too hot for human survival in 30 years’ time.

US Government vs. Global Civil Society

Global civil society condemnation of the al Jaber appointment was swift and forthright. Harjeet Singh of Climate Action Network International called it “an unprecedented and alarming conflict of interest.” The decision “reconfirms my belief that it is the corporate forces that drive the agenda of the global environmental policy,” said Indian activist S Faizi. “Those who caused the climate crisis won’t be the ones who will fix it,” the Climate Justice Alliance, an alliance of grassroots organizations in the US, said on Twitter.

More establishment institutions and figures have questioned al Jaber’s appointment as well. The UN is reportedly investigating the ties between the COP28 Presidency and ADNOC. In the US Congress, Rep. Jared Huffman (D – CA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D – RI) led a letter to U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry signed by 25 other members, urging him to pressure the UAE to withdraw al Jaber’s nomination.

However, John Kerry himself welcomed al Jaber’s appointment, and said criticism of his evident conflict of interest was a “very simplistic way to look at this.”

Who’s Being Simplistic?

Empirical evidence matters. A string of academic research and investigative reports have demonstrated that fossil fuel corporationsutilitiesauto manufacturers, and others have known about the disastrous consequences of their business model for decades, and a recent study shows they had even developed models predicting future global temperature increases and other environmental consequences of fossil fuel combustion with surprising accuracy.

Further, these studies and reports document how these business entities not only hid their scientific findings from the public, but actively funded and promoted disinformation to manufacture doubt and uncertainty about climate science.

The link between the fossil fuel, utility, and auto industries, of course, is fossil fuels. A substantial part of utilities’ business model, and the entirety of automakers’ business model, is to sell a product that either is a fossil fuel (natural gas for use in buildings), made primarily using fossil fuels (electricity), or require fossil fuels to operate (automobiles).

Climate obstructionism by fossil fuel and allied interests isn’t a thing of the past, either. Today, even as oil and gas companies take advantage of high prices to make record profits, they are backtracking on their commitments to cut emissions, and doubling down on more production.

The picture that emerges is of a relentless and remorseless industry, hell-bent on making money at all costs, and undermining efforts to hold them accountable, regardless of the catastrophic planetary impact. This is an industry that clearly cannot be trusted to influence multilateral processes on climate action.

Clearly, Kerry is the one who’s being simplistic. Or is he?

The US as a Petrostate

Kerry’s statement is very unlikely to be attributable to naivete, since it is completely consistent with US government policy.

The US is now the world’s largest producer of both crude oil and natural gas, and also a major exporter. This isn’t driven by the private sector acting on its own – it is backed by transpartisan US government policy. Ever since the “shale revolution” turned the US into a world-leading oil and gas producer, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have used government policy to favor more fossil fuel production, use, and exports.

The picture that emerges is of a relentless and remorseless industry, hell-bent on making money at all costs, and undermining efforts to hold them accountable.

Biden has continued this trend. The Biden administration is permitting a massive buildout of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, and has issued more oil and gas drilling leases on public lands in its first year in office than the Trump administration did in an equivalent period. Biden’s Interior Department looks set to approve the massive Willow oil drilling project in the Alaskan Arctic, a carbon bomb that should never be built in the first place, if the US government took established science seriously.

The US government isn’t just pursuing reckless fossil fuel production growth at home, but is pushing its agenda in international forums, to ensure a continuing market for US oil and gas exports. A recent example was the US delegation at last year’s COP27 in Egypt pushing to water down the fossil fuel phaseout language in the COP27 agreement to allow continued use of fossil fuels with unproven, hazardous “carbon capture and storage” technology. (Ultimately, pressure from Saudi Arabia nixed the language completely.)

It’s not only the executive branch, either. The oil and gas industry gave $129 million to Congressional candidates in the latest election cycle (2020-2022). The top recipient of oil and gas money was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who chairs the Senate Committee that makes energy policy, and the second highest recipient was Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), now Speaker of the House. The power of the industry extends to the upper reaches of both chambers of our federal legislature.

Increasingly, the US is evolving into a petrostate, on the lines of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The oil and gas industry exerts undue influence on multiple branches of government and on both major political parties, and the government openly makes policies favoring the industry at the expense of public health (especially in environmental justice communities) and our planetary future.

Resisting Corporate Capture

Sharpening our understanding of the US as a petrostate is key to rolling back the US fossil fuel buildout, cleaning up the fossil-fueled corruption in our political system, and undermining the pernicious influence of the US on global climate negotiations. Domestic movements resisting the US fossil fuel buildout clearly recognize the transpartisan US government consensus favoring fossil fuels, but it needs to be more widely understood at home.

Critically, the understanding of the US as a petrostate needs to be disseminated worldwide, to equip global civil society with more tools to persuade their own governments to not fall for deceptive rhetoric about US climate “leadership,” and to stand up to US bullying instead.

Basav Sen joined the Institute for Policy Studies as the Climate Justice Project Director in February 2017. His work focuses on climate solutions at the national, state, and local level that address racial, economic, gender and other forms of inequality. He has authored numerous research reports and articles on energy and transportation justice.  Prior to joining IPS, Basav worked for about 11 years as a strategic corporate campaign researcher at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). He has also had experience as a campaigner against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Basav Sen

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